Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 12.5 years for spying

Protesters wear clothes reading “Free Olivier” and hold placards in Brussels. (File/AFP)
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Updated 10 January 2023

Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 12.5 years for spying

  • Vandecasteele, 41, was handed multiple sentences totalling 40 years on a range of charges
  • With the sentences to run concurrently, he will serve 12.5 years behind bars

TEHRAN: Iran has sentenced Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele for 12.5 years behind bars for espionage as well handing him 74 lashes, the judiciary said Tuesday.
Vandecasteele, 41, was handed multiple sentences totalling 40 years on a range of charges, but with the sentences to run concurrently he will serve 12.5 years behind bars, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
Iran arrested Vandecasteele in February 2022, and he has since been held in conditions that Belgium’s government has described as “inhumane.”
He was found guilty of “espionage against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the benefit of foreign intelligence services,” and given a 12.5 year sentence.
He was given the same sentence for the crime of “cooperation with the hostile government of the United States.”
Vandecasteele was given another 12.5 years for “money laundering,” as well as a further 2.5 years and 74 lashes for “professional currency smuggling to the amount of $500,000.”
The verdict can be appealed, it added.
Last month, Vandecasteele’s family said he had been sentenced to 28 years in prison, but it was not confirmed by Iran.
Belgium insists Vandecasteele is innocent and is being held as a hostage as Tehran attempts to force Brussels to release Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism.
Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was stationed in Austria, was arrested in 2018 after Belgian, French and German security officers foiled a plot to set off a bomb at a rally outside Paris by an Iranian exiled opposition group.
After three years in detention, Assadi was sentenced in Belgium to 20 years in prison in May 2021.
Under a treaty Belgium and Iran signed in 2022, Vandecasteele would have been eligible to be swapped for Assadi.
But in early December, Belgium’s constitutional court suspended the implementation of the prisoner swap treaty pending a final ruling on its legality.


To restore reefs dying in warming seas, UAE turns to coral nurseries

Updated 21 sec ago

To restore reefs dying in warming seas, UAE turns to coral nurseries

ABU DHABI: On a boat off the coast of an island near Abu Dhabi, marine scientist Hamad Al-Jailani feels the corals, picked from the reef nursery and packed in a box of seawater, and studies them carefully, making sure they haven’t lost their color.
The corals were once bleached. Now they’re big, healthy and ready to be moved back to their original reefs in the hope they’ll thrive once more.
“We try to grow them from very small fragments up to — now some of them have reached — the size of my fist,” Al-Jailani said, who’s part of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi’s coral restoration program.
The nursery gives corals the ideal conditions to recover: clear waters with strong currents and the right amount of sunlight. Al-Jailani periodically checks the corals’ growth, removes any potentially harmful seaweed and seagrass, and even lets the fish feed off the corals to clean them, until they’re healthy enough to be relocated.

In this frame from video, Hamad al-Jailani, marine scientist at Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, shows a piece of restored coral underwater off the coast of Abu Dhabi on May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Malak Harb)

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, or EAD, has been rehabilitating and restoring corals since 2021, when reefs off the United Arab Emirates’ coast faced their second bleaching event in just five years. EAD’s project is one of many initiatives — both public and private — across the country to protect the reefs and the marine life that depend on them in a nation that has come under fire for its large-scale developments and polluting industries that cause harm to underwater ecosystems. There’s been some progress, but experts remain concerned for the future of the reefs in a warming world.
Coral bleaching occurs when sea temperatures rise and sun glares flush out algae that give the corals their color, turning them white. Corals can survive bleaching events, but can’t effectively support marine life, threatening the populations that depend on them.
The UAE lost up to 70 percent of their corals, especially around Abu Dhabi, in 2017 when water temperatures reached 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit), according to EAD. But Al-Jailani said 40-50 percent of corals survived the second bleaching event in 2021.
Although the bleaching events “did wipe out a good portion of our corals,” he said, “it did also prove that the corals that we have are actually resilient ... these corals can actually withstand these kind of conditions.”
Bleaching events are happening more frequently around the world as waters warm due to human-made climate change, caused by the burning of oil, coal and gas that emits heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Other coral reef systems around the world have suffered mass bleaching events, most notably Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
How to limit global warming and its effects will be discussed at length at the United Nations climate conference, which will be held in the UAE capital later this year.
The UAE is one of the world’s largest oil producers and has some of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions globally. The country has pledged to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which means all carbon dioxide emissions are either slashed or canceled out somehow, but the goal has been met with skepticism from analysts.

Zack Heikal, field technician of the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi, dives into the water to visit a coral reef nursery off the coast of Abu Dhabi on May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

But bleaching due to warming weather is not the only threat to coral reefs around the gulf. High oil tanker traffic, fossil-fuel related activities, offshore installations, and the exploitation of marine resources are all putting marine life under intense stress, according to the UN Environment Programme, causing them to degrade.
Environmentalists have also long criticized the UAE, and Dubai in particular, for its large-scale buildings and huge coastal developments.
The building of the Palm Jebel Ali, which began more than a decade ago and has been on hold since 2008, caused an outcry among conservationists after it reportedly destroyed about 8 square kilometers (5 square miles) of reef.
“More than 90 million cubic meters (23.8 billion gallons) of sediments were dredged and dropped, more or less on top of one of the remaining reefs near Dubai,” said John Henrik Stahl, the dean of the College of Marine Sciences at Khorfakkan University in Sharjah, UAE.
The project was meant to be similar to the Palm Jumeirah — a collection of small, artificial islands off the coast of Dubai in the shape of a palm tree.
Still, environmental projects persist across the coastline and throughout the emirates.
Development company URB has announced it wants to grow 1 billion artificial corals over a 200-square-kilometer area (124 square miles) and 100 million mangrove trees on an 80-kilometer (50-mile) strip of beaches in Dubai by 2040.
Still in the research and development phase, the project hopes to create 3D technology to print materials that can host algae, much like corals.
Members of Dubai’s diving community are also encouraging coral protection efforts.
Diving program director Amr Anwar is in the process of creating a certified coral restoration course that teaches divers how to collect and re-plant corals that have fallen after being knocked off by divers’ fins or a boat’s anchor.

PADI Course Director Amr Anwar fist bumps divers after replanting coral in Dubai on June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Malak Harb)


“I don’t want people to see broken corals and just leave them like that,” said Anwar. “Through the training we give people, they would be able to take these broken corals that they find and plant them elsewhere, and then see them grow and watch their progress.”
But experts say that unless the threat of overheating seas caused by climate change is addressed, coral bleaching events will continue to occur, damaging reefs worldwide.
Countries have pledged to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, after which scientists say the effects of warming on the planet could be much worse, and some even potentially irreversible. But analysts say most nations — including the UAE — are still way off that target.
“You have to make sure that the cause for the degradation of the coral reefs in the first place is no longer a threat,” said Stahl, the Khorfakkan University scientist. “Otherwise the restoration effort may be for nothing.”
 


Sudan declares UN envoy Volker Perthes ‘persona non grata’

Updated 23 min 28 sec ago

Sudan declares UN envoy Volker Perthes ‘persona non grata’

KHARTOUM: The Sudanese government has declared United Nations envoy Volker Perthes “persona non grata,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced.
“The Government of the Republic of Sudan has notified the Secretary-General of the United Nations that it has declared Mr. Volker Perthes ... persona non grata as of today,” the ministry said in a statement on Thursday, just weeks after army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan accused Perthes of stoking the country’s conflict and requested his removal.
Perthes was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Thursday for a series of diplomatic talks, according to the UN mission’s Twitter feed.
Since late last year, Perthes and the UN mission he heads in war-torn Sudan have been targeted by military and Islamist-backed protests denouncing perceived foreign interference.
In a letter to the UN last month, Sudan’s de facto leader Burhan blamed the envoy for exacerbating fighting between the army and the paramilitaries, accused him of not respecting “national sovereignty” and demanded he be replaced.
UN chief Antonio Guterres and members of the UN Security Council have stood by Perthes.
But last week, the Security Council voted to extend the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS)’s mandate for just six months.
Created in June 2020 to support Sudan’s democratic transition after the fall of Omar Al-Bashir a year earlier, UNITAMS had previously been renewed annually for a year.
 


After Saudi visit, Blinken raises Palestinian state with Israel PM

Updated 09 June 2023

After Saudi visit, Blinken raises Palestinian state with Israel PM

  • Blinken spoke by telephone with Netanyahu on “deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East through normalization with countries in the region”
  • Saudi FM earlier said any normalization with Israel will have limited benefits " without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people"

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to undermine prospects for a Palestinian state, after talks in Saudi Arabia which linked normalization to peace efforts.

Blinken spoke by telephone with Netanyahu to discuss “deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East through normalization with countries in the region,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Blinken “discussed the need to uphold the commitments made at regional meetings in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh to avoid measures that undermine the prospects for a two-state solution,” Miller said, referring to talks earlier this year in Jordan and Egypt that brought Israeli, Palestinian and US officials together.
Blinken in a speech this week before the leading US pro-Israel group said that he would work to win recognition of the Jewish state by Saudi Arabia — a major goal for Israel due to the kingdom’s size and role as guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.
Speaking alongside Blinken on Thursday, Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that normalization with Israel “is in the interest of the region” and would “bring significant benefits to all.”
“But without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalization will have limited benefits,” he said.
“Therefore, I think we should continue to focus on finding a pathway toward a two-state solution, on finding a pathway toward giving the Palestinians dignity and justice.”
Netanyahu during his last stint in power won normalization from the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain in what both he and the then US administration of Donald Trump saw as crowning achievements.
The longest-serving Israeli premier has returned to power leading the country’s most right-wing government ever with supporters adamantly opposed to a Palestinian state.

 


Israeli reforms ‘threat to Palestine’: report

Updated 09 June 2023

Israeli reforms ‘threat to Palestine’: report

RAMALLAH: Controversial judicial reforms proposed by Israeli’s far-right coalition government pose a threat to Palestinians, an independent commission of inquiry set up by the UN said on Thursday.

The proposals, which would curb some Supreme Court powers and increase government control of judicial appointments, have set off unprecedented protests in Israel.

In a 56-page report, the commission said proposed legislation could increase taxation of pro-Palestinian NGOs and limit their ability to document Israeli soldiers’ activities in the occupied West Bank.

Other proposals by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme religious-nationalist coalition would strip Israel’s Arab minority of citizenship and enable their deportation if they commit pro-Palestinian violence, the report said.

“The proposed changes would dismantle fundamental features of the separation of powers and of the checks and balances essential in democratic political systems,” it said.

“Legal experts have warned that they risk weakening human rights protections, especially for the most vulnerable and disfavored communities, including Palestinian citizens.”

The commission, set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2021, found Israel had increasingly stifled rights advocates “through harassment, threats, arrests, interrogations, arbitrary detention, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The commission, which conducted about 130 interviews, also found that Palestinian authorities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza had targeted Palestinian rights activists.

“The arrest and detention of Palestinian activists by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities was noted as a particularly harsh reality for many Palestinian activists,” the report said.


Lebanon recalls France envoy after rape accusation: ministry

Updated 08 June 2023

Lebanon recalls France envoy after rape accusation: ministry

  • Adwan is being investigated in France following complaints by two former embassy employees
  • Recalling the diplomat to Lebanon, however, could put him beyond the grasp of the French authorities, as Lebanon does not extradite its nationals

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s foreign ministry said Thursday it was recalling its ambassador to France, Rami Adwan, after an investigation was opened into allegations of rape and intentional violence by the envoy.
Adwan is being investigated in France following complaints by two former embassy employees.
Recalling the diplomat to Lebanon, however, could put him beyond the grasp of the French authorities, as Lebanon does not extradite its nationals.
“Following the circumstances surrounding the case of the Lebanese ambassador to France... it has been decided to recall ambassador Rami Adwan,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The envoy has rejected the allegations.
Lebanon this week sent an investigation team to the embassy in Paris to question the ambassador and hear statements from embassy staff.
Thursday’s foreign ministry statement said the decision to recall Adwan also came “in light of” the dispatch of that team to France.
It said a charge d’affaires was appointed on Wednesday.
A first former embassy employee, aged 31, had filed a complaint in June 2022 for a rape she said was committed in May 2020 in the ambassador’s private apartment, sources close to the investigation told AFP earlier, confirming a report by the Mediapart news site.
According to the complaint, she had a relationship with the ambassador, who carried out “psychological and physical violence with daily humiliations.”
The second woman, aged 28, made a complaint last February after what she said was a series of physical attacks after she turned down sexual relations.
She claims Adwan tried to hit her with his car after an argument on the sidelines of last year’s Normandy World Peace Forum.
She also accused the ambassador of trying to suffocate her at her home last December by pressing her face to her bed.
Adwan’s lawyer Karim Beylouni has said his client “contests all accusations of aggression in any shape or form: verbal, moral, sexual.”
He said Adwan had had “romantic relationships” with the two women between 2018 and 2022 that were “punctuated by arguments and breakups.”
A French diplomatic source told AFP on Monday that French authorities would ask Lebanon to lift the ambassador’s immunity.
France’s foreign ministry had earlier told AFP that “in view of the seriousness of the facts mentioned, we consider it necessary for the Lebanese authorities to lift the immunity of the Lebanese ambassador in Paris in order to facilitate the work of the French judicial authorities.”